I’m a fan of most metal subgenres, so sometimes I’ll pick a band from the promo list just because they have an interesting name. So it was with Pyramids on Mars, who I dearly hoped were a bunch of Richard C. Hoagland inspired conspiracists writing metal for martians. While the truth is more mundane – it’s actually the sci-fi influenced solo project of sultry guitar maverick Kevin Estrella – a quick listen to the title track of his previous, self-titled album convinced me I had to review this band. Imagine if Gordian Knot had written the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack. This is the sound of “Pyramids on Mars.” Pretentious instrumental prog plus dark 80s synth-rock? Sign me up!
I should really do my homework before agreeing to a review, because “Pyramids on Mars” the track is not entirely representative of Pyramids on Mars the band. Estrella explores many different styles on his second record (and, it turns out on his previous album now I’ve bothered to listen to the whole thing), with influences spanning Rush, Joe Satriani, Gary Numan, Devin Townsend, Meshuggah, and Ozzy Osborne. While these coalesce into some interesting, unique pieces later on, the first six tracks are much less imaginative. Opener “Dream Division” and “Death Valley Driver” are Satriani-lite, and while “Battle for Rome” is a little better with its Rush and Dream Theater-isms, it’s hardly worth repeated listens. Estrella channels the worst of Ozzy on “Tribute” and “Sailing the Oceans of Neptune” – the former a sappy pop-ballad, the latter a tedious, off-key slog through mid-tempo Wyldean chugging.
Tracks seven to nine save this record from being a total write-off. Estrella integrates his disparate influences more effectively on these, and despite some writing quirks they are far more interesting and distinctive than the preceding six songs. “Spectre of Orion” sounds like the bastard offspring of Rush and Voivod, “Order of the Freemasons” flits from brooding industrial to triumphant AOR and back, while “Occam’s Razor” mixes old-school tech-death with soaring synth sections. These songs at least show that Estrella has some great musical ideas, even if their execution is flawed. Sadly, spacey final track “Echo Cosmic” lets him down, as the quiet, contemplative guitar is painfully out of tune with the other instruments.
This brings me to another major complaint about Pyramids on Mars: I am unconvinced Estrella is a good enough musician to make a solo guitar record. He’s no slouch and shows off some neat fretboard fireworks, but the album is peppered with sloppy moments and the playing often lacks subtlety. I expect a bit better from a man who refers to himself as the “Satriani of the North.” How on Earth he missed the tuning issues in both “Echo Cosmic” and “Sailing the Oceans of Neptune” is beyond me.
The production is quite distinctive, with slightly thin rhythm guitars backed up by a very obvious drum machine and retro-futuristic (or dated, if you prefer) synth sounds. The drum machine spoils the more organic rocky tracks, but adds a nice industrial vibe to the more rhythmically complex and synth-heavy songs. The previous record made more of this by pushing the kick drum to the fore, a trick sadly not repeated here. The overall impression is of a lower-budget 80s recording, which I think adds to the charm, but with repeat listens, mileage may vary.
This is a disappointing release given how excited I was on first listening to “Pyramids on Mars.” The good is outweighed by the mediocre or just plain bad, leaving me quite baffled as to how one man’s form could fluctuate so dramatically. While I appreciate his efforts at innovation, Estrella’s real strength is combining retro synth-rock and prog, and Pyramids on Mars would be far better if he stopped trying to be the next Satriani and instead focussed on that.